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Episode Transcript: Rohingya Muslims welcome the U.S. declaration of genocide, but violence continues

Anisa Khalifa
The following episode includes descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. 

This is Tested from WUNC, a look at how we're responding to the day's challenges in North Carolina and the South. I'm Anisa Khalifa.

Nurullah Ahmadullah
2017, maybe one day 25,000 people died. Just one day. And so many homes, so many villages, fire.

Anisa Khalifa
The UN and human rights groups have called the Rohingya the world's most persecuted minority. But with over 80 million people displaced across the globe, their plight is often forgotten. In late March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally declared Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya people genocide.

Antony Blinken
Beyond the Holocaust, the United States has concluded that genocide was committed seven times. Today marks the eighth, as I have determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya.

Anisa Khalifa
The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group native to Rakhine state in Myanmar, also known as Burma. For decades, they have endured a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar's Bhuddist majority government. In 2017, the violence reached an unprecedented peak, sparking a mass exodus of nearly one million refugees.

Nurullah Ahmadullah
Living in my country is very difficult because our country's government, they not like us Rohingya people.

Anisa Khalifa
That's Nurullah Ahmadullah. I recently spoke to him about his life in Myanmar and the global recognition of the country's genocide. Today, Nurullah lives in the Triangle with his wife and children. He left Myanmar as a young man in the late 2000s, frustrated by his lack of rights as a Rohingya Muslim.

Nurullah Ahmadullah
I born in Burma in Myanmar. In Arakan [Rakhine] State and township is Buthidaung. Yes. Our people is Rohingya people.

Our country is 95% is Buddhists, just one percent is Hindu, 4% Muslim Rohingya people. They are Buddhist, my country's government political they [want] just this country just one religion is Buddhists. Every day I go to the somewhere, he asked me, you Muslim? Yes. Okay, you want to change your religion [to] Buddhist? I say no this is my original religion, I love my religion, it's Muslim, I cannot change. He say, You not change I kill you, I put you in jail.

Anisa Khalifa
When he was a small child, a soldier once came to Nurullah's school and asked if any of the students were Muslim.

Nurullah Ahmadullah
My teacher say, in my class, five Muslims. He said you want to change to Buddhist religion? I say no. He say you no change the Buddhist religion, you cannot come to class. After one week I no go to class. I call so many times my teacher, I miss my class, I can come, I can come. After teacher say okay you come. My country military is very very dangerous. Anytime, [for] example I have shop, I have a small business, military come say okay give money. No give money, they all fire, all he takes. Just they are kill the Muslims.

After I was finished middle school. I went I was going high school. My high school teacher say because I am Rohingya. They say Rohingya people no can go to the high school. No go university, no college. I say what happened. Teacher said this is law. Teacher asked me, you have citizen[ship] in Burma? I say government has closed my citizen[ship]. He say you cannot come to the class.

Anisa Khalifa
Myanmar's government stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship in a 1982 law that falsely declared them to be of Bengali origin. The law left them stateless and severely limited their rights. In 2001, they were banned from holding government jobs such as teachers, police, and soldiers. 

Nurullah was banned from school and couldn't travel to the next town without bribing government officials. If he tried, he could be beaten, jailed or killed. Nurullah left Myanmar in 2008.

Nurullah Ahmadullah
After I talk to my parents that I no can live this country, very difficult for me, anytime they are people kill and push and go to the jail. My mom say, Where you go? I go to the in Malaysia. After I go to the immigration office. I need a passport. Immigration say you Rohingya Muslim, we no can give you a passport. I say how can I live another country? And the immigration say, I don't know. You are like homeless here. I say my father born here, my grandfather born here, I born here, why I no have any documents here. He said this is not my problem. This is passed in law.

Anisa Khalifa
With no papers, Nurullah embarked on a difficult journey by boat, aiming for Malaysia by way of Thailand.

Nurullah Ahmadullah
I come to the Thailand probably by boat in 11 days on the ocean. In Thailand government say you have a passport? I said I do not have a passport.

Anisa Khalifa
Nurullah and his fellow refugees were sent along, in their small broken boat, to a remote beach, where they spent a month without food or water.

After one month on this boat, [from] 196 people, 21 people is dead on the boat. Because no water, no food, nothing. After Indonesia fisher boat has come, they are took our boat and go to Indonesia. Indonesia is very good country and they help people. After we go to Indonesia they are go to the hospital. They are put every medicine, good food, everything. I live in Indonesia almost one year.

Anisa Khalifa
Nurullah was welcomed in Indonesia, but after a year he had no work. With documents obtained from the UNCHR, he was able to move to Malaysia and bring his wife and daughter to live with him there. In 2019, he and his family came to North Carolina. But his parents were still back in Myanmar, where things had only worsened after he left.

Nurullah Ahmadullah
I so cry, every time I watched the news or call my parents, my mom. They are stay at home. No can go outside. Example, My neighbor there have three children and father and mother. Nighttime, one o'clock, Burma military come to the home. They are locked outside the lock and fire home, everybody's died. This is… I so sad.

Anisa Khalifa
Myanmar's security forces intensified their violence against the Rohingya Muslims from 2012 to 2016. The UN has reported mass gang-rape and killings of men, women, and children. The army, police and civilian mobs burned hundreds of Rohingya houses, schools, markets, shops, and mosques, with people still inside. They destroyed food sources and  confiscated livestock. 

And then, on August 25th, 2017, there was an explosion of violence.

Nurullah Ahmadullah
2017 is very bad. 2017, 1 million people go to the Bangladesh refugee camp and probably 27,000 people is killed in our land. Our Rohingya people total is 4 million. Right now my country have just half million.

Anisa Khalifa
Zarrin Ayesha lives in Cary, North Carolina. In 2018, she went with her family to visit a refugee encampment in Bangladesh where her brother was doing relief work.

Zarrin Ayesha
In 2017, when the Rohingya crisis started, my brother, when he saw in the news that this Myanmar army, what they did to the Rohingya people, so and they were crossing the border, and at that time, Bangladesh, government didn't give permission. So they were stranded in the border, hurt, some of them with gunshots, and with no food and no shelter, and a lot of people were naked. Officially by government, they are not giving permission. But individually, a lot of villagers they are helping, they're opening their doors, although the villagers are poor themselves, but they were opening the doors for them. And he was crying over the phone when he was describing, that Apu what I saw, I couldn't believe my eyes.

I went and stayed there in the refugee camp for 10 days. The government, they don't allow us to stay in the camps. So we can stay the whole day. But at night, we have to go out of the camp because they closed all the doors, it's kind of a jail, you can say, because they will close all the doors, no one can enter, no one can exit.

I talked with a couple of people. And I was like, so overwhelmed just looking at them. Like it felt like they have a blank face, they have seen so much… And then I saw a boy I think six, seven year old. So I just felt like oh my God, what has happened, what might have happened to this boy. I tried to talk to him. And he looked at me and just blankly, he was saying they killed my dad and my mom and my sister. And the way he was saying it, just felt like he doesn't have any emotion left anymore. This six, seven year old boy who saw his parents being shot. And I just felt like, we are human beings, what are we doing?

Anisa Khalifa
Zarrin told me one story that she says still haunts her, and which is tragically common. 

Zarrin Ayesha
I saw a mother with a developmental disabilities 11 year old boy. And this mother, she had seven kids. And the youngest one was only seven months old and breastfeeding. So they had no idea that army was attacking the village. So they saw like the neighbor's house burning and her husband came running and told that the army has attacked, we need to run. So he told the kids, run. So everyone started running on their own. And just she had the seven month old baby with her. And because of this special needs child who was like who got really afraid, looking at the fire outside - he ran inside and went under the bed. Everyone else left but the mom can't leave this child. And so she was trying to get him out of the bed.

And then she heard that the Army has entered the house. So she tried to keep this 11 year old boy calm. And then the the seven month old started crying. So what she did is she started breastfeeding the baby to keep him calm. But the army entered the room. And when they saw her, they took her outside. They didn't know that the 11 year old is under the bed. But this mom, they pulled her outside the house and they lighted the house on fire. And still when I say it, I don't know how I sleep at night after hearing that.

But they lighted the house. They took the baby from the Mother, the breastfeeding baby from the mother's lap and threw that baby in the fire. And then raped her. And she said she fainted, she doesn't know how many people raped her. She had no idea. When she came back to her senses. She opened her eyes she was alive and she said, how come I am alive. She looked at the house and the house is all burnt down, it is all ashes. And she was looking at those ashes and thinks, my seven month old baby who I was just feeding, they threw that baby on that fire.

And she suddenly saw that that 11 year old boy, this special needs child, he was standing there, he's alive somehow. Don't know how he came out, how he ran, where he was hiding. She doesn't know anything. She said that she couldn't think of anything once she saw her son. She just hugged him and started walking and everything she was seeing was like burnt, burnt.

She lost track of time, but it was daytime when she saw another group of people who came at that time she realized that she was naked. She didn't even realize that she was naked. She didn't know, like it was hurting her so much, because she was raped so many times.

She was saying that Allah has kept me alive because I need to take care of this child. Otherwise, what will happen to my baby? So she's still thinking about, at least she has one boy alive. And she said she doesn't know where her husband is, where her other children are. If they're alive or dead, she has no clue. She has no clue. And she is surviving there every day, she's, she was like, at a moment she started screaming, I want revenge. I want revenge. But I don't know how to take revenge. If I could get those people who raped me like that, who threw my baby into the fire, I want revenge from the world. But who's listening? Nobody's listening.

Anisa Khalifa
Nurullah, despite his many journeys and his long absence from Myanmar, wishes to return home. 

Nurullah Ahmadullah
I miss my country, I miss my land. Because I born in my country. I do not have citizenship. I need them give back my citizenship, everything, we can go back our country.

Anisa Khalifa
But is a safe and peaceful return really possible for the Rohingya? And what needs to happen before they can go back? I spoke to an international human rights lawyer,  Djaouida Siaci, who's been working to bring attention to this issue since 2017. She told me what triggered the most recent wave of violence, the latest in a decades-long campaign of oppression.

Djaouida Siaci
In August 2017, the basic deprivation of human rights in the regime of apartheid took a really brutal turn. The state of Myanmar and its agents, under the pretext of so called clearance operation to strengthen security and defuse tension, which was really triggered by a coordinated attack by, I think, a group of insurgents yielding really sticks and knives - you can see the, the the disproportional amount of force that were used against them. This unleashed violence against the whole community, whole villages were burned, men and boys were killed and women and girls were raped, brutally raped. Sexual violence was a central component of the genocidal policy, which was planned, coordinated and implemented at the highest echelon of the Myanmar military and security forces during the 2017 campaign.

All told, there are almost a million Rohingya refugees who are currently living in the most objectively inhumane conditions in the largest refugee encampment in the world, waiting for a place to call home. And I think each of these refugees stands today as, really, a symbol of humanity betrayed. There was no conflict. There was no war, and this was not a small battalion of military Burmese military that was sent to put down some sort of uprising. This was full fledged battalions of the military and security forces that were dispatched to decimate a group of people only because of their ethnicity and religious beliefs. There were no other reasons.

Anisa Khalifa
So what is the legal status of the Rohingya people now? Can you kind of explain that to a lay person who doesn't quite understand the intricacies of international laws?

Djaouida Siaci
So the Rohingya are stateless. Under international law, there are two instruments that provide protection to stateless people, the 1954 convention relating to the status of stateless persons, and the 1961 convention on the reduction of statelessness. So these are the two kind of main instruments along actually with other international conventions, human rights conventions.

The Rohingya trace their roots to Myanmar centuries ago. The Rohingya represent the largest ethnic minority religious group in Burma, or Myanmar. And so the citizenship law of 1982, which was enacted in 1992, stripped the country's 1 million Rohingya of citizenship, leaving them without access to nothing, I mean, in every single aspect of life, they are discriminated against. You know, from education, to employment, public health, to religious activities, movement, freedom of movement, there is, you know, family life...they are the only ethnic minority to which a mandatory two child limit is imposed.

The 20th century has seen really a shift from traditional conflict to domestic conflict. Traditional conflict is a conflict between two sovereign states, two military powers. We saw a shift from that to domestic conflict and conflict that would oppose a sovereign state or internationally recognized or UN recognized state to a non-state actor. And within that evolution, we saw a shift in the burden of warfare, which shifted from military forces to civilians. 80%, or 90% of the people affected by war today are civilians. You know, the common casualty of war today is not a soldier dying of a bullet. But the child dying of malnutrition in Yemen, or a child being sold by its parents so they can survive in Afghanistan.

And within that shift, we saw a rise in sexual violence and rape. It has become a strategic and tactical weapon of war. It comes at no cost to the perpetrators, you know, we don't need tanks. And we saw that actually in Rwanda, in the former Yugoslavia against Bosnian women, Muslim women and Croatian women. And it, it comes with shockingly effective results. Rape victims never come back to where they're raped, which leads to the cleansing of territory, and that's the ultimate military goal. So I think it's always important to see what kind of evolution in international and domestic armed conflict and why sexual violence which was in the Rohingya genocide, a tool to commit genocide.

Genocide is a crime that has a gender implication. Men and boys are killed, women and girls are raped. Many of them actually die, but many survive. And they are the only ones who are left to tell the world of where when how these crimes were committed against them. So that's part, actually, of the work we do and I do with other people, is to support them, because it's extremely important for them to be able to tell the world, to witness, to articulate how these crimes were committed.

Anisa Khalifa
I just, I'm just so blown away and so disturbed by the idea that this is a deliberate strategy for ethnic cleansing. I never thought about that before, because I don't know, the way we learned about war is that oh, rape happens during war. It's just kind of an inevitable side effect, you know, like even the Vietnam War. There was so much rape. A lot of it was by the US forces. I just feel sick at the thought that this is actually a deliberate tactic.

Djaouida Siaci
It was deliberately done, again it was planned, calculated, and we have precedent in international law. Rape can be prosecuted as a crime of genocide.

Anisa Khalifa
The suffering that the Rohingya have endured has been brutal and ongoing. Yet the world has paid very little attention to this crisis. I asked Nurullah how he feels about the Biden administration's declaration that what was done to his people is genocide. 

Nurullah Ahmadullah
I so happy because we are a long time, it is 75 years our people is genocide. So many country has declared a genocide while I long time wait for United States president to say it's genocide. Because last week they are already declared the genocide, we are so happy. Thank you for American president, thank you for American people. We are so happy they are declared a genocide.

Zarrin Ayesha
Finally, finally, I feel I know it's too little, but I won't call it too late.

Anisa Khalifa
Again, this is Zarrin Ayesha. 

Zarrin Ayesha
Especially when America is saying something, the world listens. If any other country says it, if Bangladesh is saying it, nobody was listening.

Anisa Khalifa
International lawyer Djaouida points out that the declaration is limited to what happened in 2016 and 17 rather than acknowledging that the genocide has been ongoing for decades, but she sees it as an important development. 

Djaouida Siaci
Because it's an acknowledgement by the US, specifically the US, that the crimes amount to the crime of crimes, the crime of genocide. It helps in a sense restore some dignity to the Rohingya, because many people, including non-Rohingya in Myanmar, have really not only not believed them, but have not considered what happened the worst of crimes.

In terms of how we can move actually, from words to action, one of the things that we have been suggesting is extending a Priority 2 refugee status to Rohingya in the United States. A determination like this one on previous groups have allowed these groups to enjoy a P2 refugee status as a member of a persecuted group. P2 recipients are able to bypass all the procedures for resettlement by UNHCR, by the US Embassy, by NGO referral, and apply directly, actually, for refugee status determination in the United States.

Anisa Khalifa
Djaouida told me that she hopes that the US follows this determination with direct economic pressure on Myanmar's government and increased aid for Rohingya refugees. She also wants the US to recognize the government in exile that has been set up since the coup in February. 

Djaouida Siaci
What happened yesterday, actually, the 152 million pledged by the US to beef up the humanitarian response capacity is a very important development in that sense. But we need not only protection, but accountability.

Anisa Khalifa
This is obviously an international issue, but we have also, you know, refugees from Myanmar that live right here in our state.

Djaouida Siaci
So, there are a few thousand Rohingya refugees who have been admitted to the United States. I know of 10 families who are have been resettled in our area. And I have to tell you working with some of them…Many of them are struggling with institutional systematic racism faced in Burma. So the consequences and the effect of that are still lingering and they came, many of them, with a lot of trauma and and have been suffering from that since. The lack of education is a huge challenge.

When refugees come, the journey is very long and dangerous. So they leave, they go to a host country. And from the host country, when they're processed, they come to what we call third country resettlement in that case, in this case, the United States. So the first thing is the language barrier. Many are struggling with acculturative stress, trauma and substance abuse, and they need extra support to help them, you know, get adjusted and acclimatized to our society. And so there's a host of issues that they deal with coming from a country where they have been persecuted for decades.

Anisa Khalifa
Nurullah is happy in North Carolina; his children can go to school, he can work, and the family recently moved into their own house. But his parents still live in Myanmar, and he hasn't been able to meet them since he left in 2008. He tells me even the basics of daily life are a struggle for those left behind.

Nurullah Ahmadullah
There, life is very difficult. Because [for] example we have a hospital or for clinic, example somebody sick in there, go to the hospital. Doctor is all government people. Example, you Muslim Rohingya. They are not given good medicine. Okay you can go home. Go home, they are not happy. They have no medicine. People have died, so many people. This is very difficult.

Right now everybody knows our people is is genocide. I hope American or other country, international countries go to help our people. Right now because it's very serious. This genocide no finish. Our country has ongoing genocide, now. Because quickly [if] they are not going to fix this problem, our people is all finished. We need emergency help for support, support our people and go to the protests. Go to save our people's life.

Anisa Khalifa
That's all for this episode of Tested. Our editor is Dave DeWitt. I'm Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening.